Friday, September 27, 2019


At a certain point in one's life, the deaths begin to accumulate, don't they?  Family members and relatives, close and distant.  Friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, classmates, neighbors.  In the public sphere, nearly every week brings news of the deaths of musicians, assorted entertainers, sports heroes, and other figures who one "grew up with."  (Ah, the vanishing rock stars, carrying away our youth!)

One grieves to a greater or a lesser extent, but, on a purely self-interested level, one also begins to get the message.  Something along these lines:

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Or, in the context of a different season, this:

     Spring has departed;
Where has it gone,
     The moored boat?

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 286.

Buson's haiku leads naturally to this waka, which was written nine centuries before Buson's time (the continuity of Japanese poetry is a wonderful thing):

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935), "Corn Stooks" (c. 1880)

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius now and then posts lists of the illustrious and not-so-illustrious dead in order to remind himself that all is vanity and that all living things, including the emperor of Rome, are evanescent bubbles.  For instance:

"Hippocrates, after conquering many diseases, yielded to a disease at last.  The Chaldeans foretold the fatal hours of multitudes, and fate afterwards carried themselves away.  Alexander, Pompey, and Caius Caesar, who so often razed whole cities, and cut off in battle so many myriads of horse and foot, at last departed from this life themselves. Heraclitus, who wrote so much about the conflagration of the universe, died swollen with water, and bedaubed with ox-dung. Vermin destroyed Democritus, and another sort of vermin destroyed Socrates."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book III, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

I understand what the emperor is getting at:  "Then stop, and ask, where are they all now?  Smoke, and ashes, and an old tale; or, perhaps, not even a tale."  (Meditations, Book XII, Section 27.)  Yes, understood.  But, as Marcus knew, this recognition is only the starting point for leading a good life and arriving at a good death. And now, Philip Larkin chimes in:  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  ("Aubade.")  Yes, understood as well.  One will never be prepared.  With an apology for being self-referential:  "How little we know!  It leaves you breathless."

In the meantime, I prefer lovely intimations.  A crow passing silently overhead in the evening sky of autumn.  A still pond and a departed boat.  A seaside town in late September.

       September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
"Come in, fifteen, your time is up."

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Joseph Farquharson, "Harvesting, Forest of Birse" (c. 1900)


  1. Mostly, I think because Hugh Kenner quotes it, I remember the words from Basil Bunting's "Villon" beginning "Remember imbeciles and wits", and in particular those from "We are less permanent than thought..."

  2. Stephen,
    How can any of us prepare for the time when we are absent from this world with all its beauty and joy. Yet each of us know this is how it will be.
    Thus we savour what we have. Each glimpse, moments when we are almost shaken from the moment itself and see anew, almost as if for the first time.

    Over the last three or four weeks a flight of about half a dozen geese has passed over the rooftops of the street where I live as evenings’ darkness falls. They fly overhead, honking loudly, darker shapes against the darkening sky.
    The sound as they are briefly here, the stillness after they’ve have gone,and then the empty street below.

    Autumn evening-
    After geese
    The skies silence

    Thank you for posting Derek Mahon’s September in Great Yarmouth, and prompting me to take Poems 1962-1978 from my bookshelf after far too long.

  3. George: Thank you very much for the reference to the Bunting poem, which is new to me. (I confess that my limited encounters with his work have left me befuddled, which is no doubt my fault.) I found "Villon" on the internet, and the passage you reference contains some fine lines ("Death is written over all," "our doom is, to be sifted by the wind, heaped up, smoothed down like silly sands," and the line you quote: "we are less permanent than thought").

    Thank you for sharing this, and for visiting. It's always good to hear from you.

  4. John: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts, and for the wonderful poem. "Thus we savour what we have" is nicely put, and, as you say, it is a matter of "glimpses" and "moments," isn't it? This is borne out by your thoughts on the geese, and by the poem (which perfectly complements Kishū's crow haiku).

    Geese sounding overhead are an essential element of autumn, aren't they? As you may recall, I have written here before about my early childhood experiences in Minnesota with the large flocks of Canadian geese each autumn. They have haunted me ever since. My experience in this part of the world is similar to yours: small flocks that come and go. Always lovely. The poem's reference to the silence in the sky after they have passed is beautiful.

    I'm pleased to have sent you back to Mahon's Poems 1962-1978. I think I have nearly everything that he has published, but that brown volume with the Botticelli drawing on the dust-jacket is my sentimental favorite.

    I wish you a delightful autumn. As ever, thank you very much for visiting.

  5. When my mom died five years ago (following my dad, who had already been gone nine years), the image that presented itself to me was that of the WWI soldier, hunkering down in his trench, listening to the sounds of battle, as the waves that have gone before him do their bit for king and country. He has a bit of leisure to think of other things as long as those chaps are still out there. But once the last of them are gone...the whistle blows and it's, "On you feet and step up to the ladder - you're next!"

  6. Mr. Parker: I know that feeling, although you describe it more creatively, and with greater impact, than I can. My situation is the same as yours: my father passed away quite some time ago, and my mother two years ago. The moment you speak of suddenly came to me a few days after her death: I realized that my parents and all of my grandparents were now gone; the only adults left from my childhood were a few aunts and uncles. It was an odd and disconcerting realization: "Well, then, so that's how it is."

    Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Fine piece of work, Stephen. The Mahon is transcendent. I was unfamiliar and, now, I am not. 3 fine haiku as a capper, even if they came first. Many thanks, Don Wentworth

  8. Don: Thank you very much. That's nice of you to say. Yes, "September in Great Yarmouth" is a wonderful thing, isn't it? "Come in, fifteen, your time is up." The poem calls to me each September. I'm delighted that you like it. As you know, there are many such treasures in Mahon's poetry.

    Thank you for visiting again, and for posting two comments in one day! Best wishes for a lovely autumn.

  9. I am reminded of one of George Gissing's frequent sayings: "When something troubles or worries you, only think of the importance it will have in some fifty years hence, and you will feel how futile these things in fact are."

    All good be with you!

  10. Andrew: Thank you very much for sharing this: wonderful! I thought that perhaps it was a passage from The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft that I had forgotten. However, a bit of Google searching led me to -- voila! -- a post from Graveyard Masonry on February 4, 2012, in which you note that its source is a recollection by Gabrielle Fleury of something that Gissing used to say. (And now you've got me thinking that I ought to explore Gissing's letters.)

    I'm delighted to hear from you again. All the best to you as well.